CONVERSATION RANGES over many topics during an Olé Café Spanish Language Meetup Group meeting. As I sit in on one of their frequent videoconferences, folks ask each other questions, talk about past vacations in Spanish-speaking places and recommend Spanish-language TV shows (the Mexican comedy-drama “Club de Cuervos” is a favorite) — all in Spanish.
I’m a beginner, knowing just enough to get by in Spanish-speaking countries using a limited vocabulary and creative gestures. But the fluent speakers are kind, helping newbies when we stumble.
Amanda Reichert, who owns Olé Café and the Vámonos Language Center school, says many fluent speakers remember how hard it is to pick up a new language. “When they see people trying and see them experiencing the struggle, they’re adamant about being able to help,” she says.
Reichert used to hold in-person classes and casual Spanish-language gatherings, including book clubs and game nights, at her brick-and-mortar Olé Café near Green Lake. The cafe still hosts such events, but online now.
Their online chats, like the café, are “a space where it’s clear that people are there to practice and learn,” she says.
A few days later, I contribute more during the Seattle French Conversation Meetup, though my junior-high French is usually rusting away in the back of my mind. It feels invigorating to dust off long-unused phrases that emerge relatively easily in the context of an immersive conversation.
Later, organizer Beverly Aarons tells me this group has been meeting, in various configurations, for 10 years now. Some of the members, including Aarons, have lived in French-speaking places. Others are reviving the French we learned long ago or practicing something new.
Group members used to get together in cafes scattered around Seattle. The idea, Aarons says, was to give people a reason to meet neighbors they might have something in common with. The group also hosted twice-a-year parties that drew up to 150 people.
Meeting by videoconference is a bit different.
“A cafe can be noisy, but it was very easy to talk to one other person at a time. Sitting in front of a screen can be intimidating,” Aarons says.
Still, the online meetings “have gone really well,” she says. Between her and co-organizer Marc Becraft, the group hosts one Wednesday and two Saturday meetings a month.
As with the Spanish group I joined, this one includes speakers of varied fluency. “It gives people at different levels the opportunity to hear fluent speakers — and there are always a few high-level speakers,” Aarons says.
Richard Isaac used to host an in-person Hebrew language group, now on hold for the near future, and also has been part of other practice groups in his lifelong pursuit of learning languages. Through the Hebrew group, especially, “I made friends who are friends to this day,” he says.
He’s at least dabbled in 10 languages and is currently taking online Swedish classes.
Until we can travel abroad again, surrounding yourself (virtually) with people speaking the language is as close to immersion as we’ll get. And immersion is the best way to learn. “My experience is that you have to sort of dive in and not worry about making a fool of yourself. The more you practice, the more you learn,” Isaac says.